As a result of the logistical bottleneck in relief efforts after last year’s earthquake, the Nepal Army is further upgrading its fleet with three new helicopters.
The Army added two Russian Mi-17 helicopters after the earthquake and now has three of this type, but its assortment of smaller helicopters comprises five different types and is difficult to maintain and operate.
Another lesson from the earthquake was that because the Army did not have its own lift capacity, it had to depend on foreign military helicopters, raising geopolitical sensitivities when Indian Air Force and US Marines choppers strayed too close to the Chinese border.
“It became really difficult for us to keep all sides happy,” admits one Army official. “If we had enough helicopters of our own we wouldn’t have been as exposed to such pressure.”
Currently the Army has three Mi-17s, two Bell 202s, one Alouette, two AS350 Écureuils and two Super Pumas. It also has Lancers, Cheetahs, and ALHs acquired during the war, which are all grounded.
The Army is now looking at buying either the Bell 412 or AgustaWestland to replace the ageing VVIP Super Puma and two AS350 B3s. While the AS350s are proven in Nepal, especially for high-altitude rescue, the front runner is said to be the Bell 412 which conducted test flights at Mt Everest Base Camp and Jomsom last week.
“They were the most unique flights in my life, they were just wow!” said Bell test pilot Brent Berwick (pictured in Jomsom, above) who flew the 412 with Nepali helicopter pilots up to an altitude of 6,400m in the Khumbu and Annapurna areas. “I was really impressed with the outstanding airmanship of the Nepali pilots.”
The 412 made landings and take-offs at Pheriche and climbed above Mt Everest Base Camp, as well as carried out ridge landings in the Kali Gandaki Valley. Berwick says the 412 has a niche because of its versatility, fuel economy and lift capacity.
“It is a helicopter that goes to work every day with minimum ground time, there is nothing fragile about it. It’s a workhorse,” says Shriram Ghatpande, a former Indian Air Force pilot who now sells Bells in South Asia.
Nepali pilot Siddhartha Gurung of Simrik Air also got to test fly the 412 and said that although it lacked the high-altitude capability of the AS350 B3, it handled well and could be useful in rescue and relief operations because it can carry three stretchers and 14 passengers.
Simrik has ordered one Bell 407, scheduled for delivery in July, and wants to use it for high-end tourist flights. Even though its list price is higher than for the Écureuil, the 407 has half the fuel burn.
Says Rajendra Bahadur Singh of Simrik, which now represents Bell in Nepal: “The 407 and 412 test flights proved that Nepal offers ideal terrain to showcase the ruggedness and performance of new aircraft. Nepal’s great asset is that it can be an aviation proving area.”
Reporting by Rameswor Bohara
Spreading wings wider, Kunda Dixit
India-China bhai-bhai, From the Nepali Press
$70,000,000, Binod Bhattarai